from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2012, Issue No. 73
July 23, 2012

Secrecy News Blog:


The number of people who held security clearances for access to classified information increased last year to a new reported high of more than 4.8 million persons as of October 1, 2011, a new intelligence community report to Congress said.

Last year's annual report, the first official count of security cleared personnel, had indicated that there were over 4.2 million clearances in 2010. That number astonished observers because it surpassed previous estimates by more than a million. ("Number of Security Clearances Soars," Secrecy News, September 20, 2011).

But it turns out that the 2010 number itself underreported the number of clearances, and the new report to Congress presents a revised 2010 figure of 4.7 million. Even so, the number of clearances rose in 2011 by about 3% to 4.86 million, the new report said.

The total clearance figure is composed of cleared government employees and contractors, at all clearance levels -- Confidential, Secret and Top Secret. (The number of Top Secret clearances alone was over 1.4 million.) It includes all persons who have been cleared for access to classified information whether or not they have actually been granted such access. While the total reported figures are "likely to include some duplicate entries," the report explains, efforts have been made to eliminate them and only "a minimal number of duplicates" remain.

The annual report on security clearances was required by Congress in the FY2010 Intelligence Authorization Act. It represents a new degree of transparency in national security classification policy. Until the first report was issued last year, only rough estimates of the size of the cleared population were available, and those estimates proved to be unreliable.

The latest ten-page report includes numerous details that are ordinarily withheld from public disclosure, whether they are classified or not. For example, the new report indicates that 5.3% of the security clearance cases that CIA processed last year resulted in denial of clearance. At NSA, the number of denials reached 8.0%.

Six of the seven intelligence community agencies that do their own clearance adjudications reported that they had cases that had been open for more than one year, the report said. The number of pending security clearance cases at CIA requiring more than one year to complete was 3,755 for government employees, and 732 for contractors.

"The IC faces unique challenges in clearing individuals with unique or critical skills -- such as highly desirable language abilities -- who often have significant foreign associations that may take additional time to investigate and adjudicate," the report said.

The new report was transmitted to Congress in early July, and was first mentioned in a July 12 report from the Government Accountability Office. The report itself was publicly released last week by ODNI in response to a request from Secrecy News.


On Friday, the National Security Agency released a declassified email message entitled "What a Wonderful Success" that had been used as the basis for a felony count against former NSA official Thomas Drake in 2010, who was charged with unlawful retention of classified information, including that message.

Although all of the felony counts against Mr. Drake were eventually dismissed, the "What a Wonderful Success" email remains controversial because it has been challenged by a leading classified expert as an exemplar of reckless overclassification.

The document is "an innocuous, internal communication that never should have been classified in the first place," according to a petition filed last May by J. William Leonard, the former director of the Information Security Oversight Office. He asked the presiding judge in the Drake case to lift the protective order which currently bars him from discussing the NSA document.

The release of the NSA document was first reported in "Ex-federal official calls U.S. classification system 'dysfunctional'," by Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post, July 22.

Without getting into the specifics of the newly disclosed document, Mr. Leonard said: "I can generally state that the very critical national security tool of classification of national security information is becoming dysfunctional and requires the highest level of attention if it is to continue to be an effective national security tool."

"Specifically, the system clearly lacks the ability to differentiate between trivial information and that which can truly damage our nation's well-being. At the same time, and even more importantly, it appears to be incapable of holding government officials accountable for abusing the classification system."

"If the system continues to be one-sided, where individuals are routinely held to account for supposedly improperly disclosing protected information but no one is ever held accountable for improperly classifying information in the first place, it sends a very clear message to the millions of individuals with security clearances to continue to overclassify with impunity. That does not bode well for either the security of our nation or our democratic form of government."

"Absent meaningful corrective action by the Government at the highest of levels, to include the President, I despair for the integrity of the classification system," Mr. Leonard said.


Certain types of classified information pertaining to nuclear weapons are going to be downgraded or declassified, the Department of State indicated in a newly disclosed report.

"Over the past fiscal year, the Department [of State] has been actively working with the Departments of Energy and of Defense to identify information that had previously been classified under the Atomic Energy Act or various national security executive orders," wrote Sheryl Walter, the director of State's Office of Information Programs and Services, in a February 10, 2012 letter to the Information Security Oversight Office.

"Several categories of this information, including topics concerning nuclear weapons, weapons testing, improvised nuclear devices, and international cooperation relating to nuclear forensics, will be downgraded, classified for shorter durations, or declassified," Ms. Walter wrote. No schedule for declassification was mentioned. The letter was released last week under the Freedom of Information Act.


After the Department of Defense issued a statement last week saying that it would "monitor all major, national level reporting" for evidence of unauthorized disclosures of classified information, Pentagon reporters wrote to the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to ask whether such monitoring extended to surveillance of the press.

"We are asking you to clarify in writing what is meant by 'monitor all major, national level reporting'," wrote reporters Robert Burns (Associated Press), Kevin Baron (National Journal), Luis Martinez (ABC) and Barbara Starr (CNN) on behalf of the Pentagon Press Association.

"The phrase 'monitor all major, national level reporting' could be interpreted by some as authorizing intrusive actions aimed at members of the news media who report on defense issues. We have received no answers as to specific monitoring authorities, and 'reporting' is much broader than 'published reports'," they wrote.

In particular, they asked, what specific authorities does the Pentagon claim for monitoring the media?

"Do you have authority to do the following: *tap phones at work or home? *intercept or monitor emails? *conduct monitoring or surveillance of Pentagon press workspaces?"

"Are you authorized to monitor phone conversations, emails or press workspaces without our knowledge?"

See the July 20 letter from the Pentagon Press Association here:

The letter was first reported by Austin Wright in Politico on July 20. As of last night, no reply from DoD had been forthcoming.


New reports from the Congressional Research Service that have not been made otherwise available to the public include these.

Climate Change and Existing Law: A Survey of Legal Issues Past, Present, and Future, July 2, 2012 (published July 19):

A Brief Overview of Actions Taken by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) in Its First Year, July 18, 2012:

Conflict Minerals in Central Africa: U.S. and International Responses, July 20, 2012:


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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